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3 strategies for better donor stewardship (and loyal donors)

Looking to create meaningful relationships with your donors that encourage them to keep giving? Start off on the right foot with these three donor stewardship basics.

Rachel Mills
December 10, 2020

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Donor stewardship sounds complex, but it simply refers to the steps your organization takes after a donor gives a gift to ensure you get another one. When you thank your donor, update them on the impact of their gift, and follow up with them to deepen that relationship, you’re “stewarding” their next gift.

For many nonprofits and fundraising groups, their donor stewardship programs focus on goals like increasing their donors’ gift size or getting new givers to donate a second time. However, the ultimate goal of stewardship is to create meaningful, long-term relationships with your supporters. Start off on the right foot with the three stewardship basics below.

1. Segment your donor base

Segmenting your donors into neat categories helps you communicate with the right language, at the right moment. It’s an essential step, whether you’ve got 20 contacts or 200,000 contacts in your donor database. You’re able to tailor your stewardship strategy to each segment, ushering each group toward higher levels of giving, volunteering, and engagement based on their unique qualities and preferences.

There are many strategies to slice up your donor base into bite-sized, easy-to-manage pieces. You can segment according to demographics (like gender, age, race, and location); average donation amount; giving frequency; the number of years they’ve supported your cause; donation preferences (online, by phone, by mail) and more.

One of the most commonly used stewardship tools is the donor pyramid. It’s a favorite of nonprofit organizations because it gives you an easy visual overview of where your donors stand in their journey. Take a look at the pyramid from top to bottom:

  • Major donors and planned givers
  • Recurring donors, mid-level donors, and high-frequency donors
  • First-time donors, small donors, low-frequency donors
  • Volunteers, supporters, and prospective donors

In theory, the highest level comprises your high-value donors, usually the smallest group, while the lowest level of the pyramid is the bulk of your donor base. Your stewardship efforts should lift supporters from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, gradually flipping it upside down.

We know, this is no small feat! One way to break this goal down into small, achievable tasks is to pair your pyramid with a timeline. Let’s say it takes 36 months for your average first-time giver to become a monthly giver. Set a goal of decreasing this conversion time to 32 months, and then target this segment using the engagement techniques we cover below.

2. Always be communicating

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“Always be closing” (ABC) is a popular motivational phrase that encourages salespeople to constantly find new leads, pitch their product, and close the deal. When it comes to donor stewardship, you should keep a similar phrase top of mind — “Always be communicating!”

We don’t mean you should annoy your supporters with daily emails, phone calls, and donation request letters. We mean a regular, purposeful donor communication strategy that’s exciting and, above all, relevant to your followers. This includes everything from your donation receipts and thank-you notes to your social media posts and annual reports.

Just like the other important relationships in your life, your donor relationships require a personal touch.

‍“Dear Donor,” “Dear Volunteer,” and “Dear Sir or Madam” won’t inspire any first gifts or major gifts any time soon. So, personalize your communication and outreach wherever possible. Ask and be mindful of different donors’ preferences when it comes to communication. We’ve curated some great tactics to engage with your donors.

Share interesting articles and resources

Initiate conversations, provide thought leadership, and educate supporters with eye-grabbing content. You can use marketing software to understand which topics and materials attract your donors.

Highlight impact stories and results

Often, you and your supporters are going up against gargantuan issues like world hunger, child literacy, and homelessness. Share your successes and emphasize how each dollar and hour made it possible — you can use videos, articles, infographics, reports, and more. (Check out the beneficiary and donor stories in the charity: water 2019 annual report for inspiration.)

Offer frequent volunteer opportunities

Make sure your donors know there are other ways to get involved. While donors can’t always give, they may leap at the chance to volunteer or promote your fundraiser. This keeps your organization top of mind and can motivate donors to give later.

Don’t forget holiday and birthday cards, donor spotlights, one-on-one visits, and community events. All these touchpoints help your supporters feel like active agents of change in your organization. Finally, take all your engagement ideas and compile them in a clear communication schedule, which is a key element of your overall fundraising plan.

3. Reward support with gratitude and recognition

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Saying “thank you” is one of the easiest ways to cultivate loyal donors and steward future gifts.

Best of all, there’s no shortage of tactics to make your supporters feel good, whether they donated $1 or $10,000. Let’s dive right into some of the best recognition ideas:

  • Membership programs: Enter donors who give a certain amount into a membership program with incentives like free event tickets, merchandise, or early access to news and updates.
  • Social media shout-outs: Grab the social media megaphone and say thank you to donors by name with heartfelt posts, images, and GIFs. With Givebutter’s live Supporter Feed, you can connect with your amazing supporters right from your fundraising page. Donors can share messages and like each other’s posts — over 75% of donors do — and you can engage in a fun, familiar way.
  • Personal phone calls: Have a board member or other member of your organization’s leadership reach out to your key supporters for a friendly, one-to-one conversation.
  • Video and audio messages: Craft a brief, personalized video message to quickly connect with and appreciate donors online.
  • Honor rolls: Honor rolls organize donors according to their giving levels and are usually included in event brochures and other materials. For instance, recognize donors at the $1-$99 level, $99-$500 level, etc.
  • Naming rights: Give donors the chance to leave a legacy by naming a project or special item after them. Engraved bricks, buildings, benches, and trees are all popular.

Need a starting point for your donor recognition strategy? Use the 3:1 ratio. For every one donation, ticket purchase, or merchandise sale, aim to thank your supporters at least three times. For example, let’s say you received a $250 donation toward your food pantry program. You could send a donation confirmation email with a thank-you note, mail a handwritten card, and include the donor’s name in your year-end report.

Remember to use each donor’s preferred communication channel when you’re ready to show some love. If they prefer emails and a maximum of one message per month, or they don’t want their name mentioned in any promotional materials, stick with that.

If crafting the right recognition strategy seems complicated, you don’t need to pull it out of thin air. Send out a survey that asks each donor which messages, events, and gifts resonate with them and why. For deeper insights and better donor relations, you can send out separate surveys to all your donor segments.

Amp up your donor stewardship plan đź’Ş

Donor stewardship techniques may change over time, but if your donors feel seen, heard, and appreciated, they’ll keep returning to support your mission year after year. You can’t go wrong with the three relationship-building best practices above.

For more tips on creating lifelong donors and supporters, read our guide to boosting your donor retention rate.

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